April 20, 2016

Burger Beat: Two New Beefy Options in Athens

Grub Notes

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Groove Burgers

BURGERTOWN, PT. 1: Sometimes I wonder if the design of the new shopping center on Epps Bridge Parkway/the Oconee Connector is deliberately disorienting, like a casino, constructed in such a way that one wanders around not knowing exactly where to go but unable to find one’s way out. You may have a slightly hard time locating the new Groove Burgers (1791 Oconee Connector, 762-499-5699), which is in the middle section, shaped like a squashed hexagon, near Guitar Center and Alumni Hall, even though a few church BBQ-type signs attempt to point the way.

Surrounded on all sides by chains, it is, at least for now, a one-of-a-kind business, although clearly one with an eye toward franchising. Brought to you by Bridger Loftin of Locos, which has successfully duplicated itself many times throughout the Southeast, Groove Burgers takes a cue from Taqueria del Sol. Walk in the door and order at the counter, take your number, grab a seat, and your food is out speedily. If there’s a line (not a problem yet, but possibly in the future), you can go sit at the bar and order there. Clean accents of corrugated metal, taking inspiration from the “groove” of the name, are everywhere, and the look is chill, not hyper, apart from the large TVs tuned to ESPN.

The menu is more thoughtful and more interesting than the average burger joint, chain or not. Rather than shooting for retro (little-bitty burgers focused on ketchup and mustard, paper hats, not much else, maybe some chili), it’s contemporary, with turkey, chicken and veggie burgers alongside the beef and actual vegetables, not just starches, in the “sides” section. The fries are skinny and simple, crisp, not soggy, unless you get the poutine, which tops them with a fairly bland cheese and a salty brown gravy. The mac and cheese is ignorable, but the roasted Brussels sprouts are tasty and the onion rings big and lightly battered; there’s also asparagus, sweet potato chips and fried okra.

Maybe the smartest and best thing on the menu is the “street corn,” Groove’s version of elote, a popular Mexican snack food consisting of a whole ear of grilled corn with the husk bent back and the kernels coated in a mixture of chili powder, mayo, crema and cotija cheese. Intensely flavored and cutely executed (the husk is tied in a cute bow that also serves as a neat handle), it is, in fact, better than the more authentic version served at the Pendergrass Flea Market, although you may need some floss when you’re done.

Everything is à la carte; no combo platters here. The bun tends to dissolve, especially if you order a burger with more toppings, like the Groove Burger (bacon, “groove sauce,” house pickles, caramelized onions, Bibb lettuce, heirloom tomatoes and cheddar). Flip it upside down, do your best to eat it quickly and hope you have a wet wipe handy. Caramelized onions show up a lot, but for good reason: they hold their flavor well, can be prepared in advance and taste really good.

The “groove sauce” is not, for once, just the same old mixture of ketchup and mustard, and it also shows up (along with the onions) on the Smokin’ Thighs sandwich made with grilled chicken thighs, another smart decision by the restaurateur. Why eat a sad grilled chicken breast when you could eat an actually good chicken thigh? The lamb burger is a bit of a disappointment (too dense; all the salt is in the tzatziki, not the patty), and the salted caramel shake is fine but not mind-blowing, but the Churrasco burger makes a strong argument in favor of chimichurri sauce as a new standard, if you don’t mind garlic breath. (It’s worth it!)

Groove Burgers is efficient and well put together, has a patio outside, is open for lunch and dinner every day and has beer and wine, including some decent stuff, but the soft drinks are only Pepsi products.

BURGERTOWN, PT. 2: More briefly, Fatburger (196 Alps Road, 706-354-6655), the international chain, is open inside Buffalo’s Cafe, in Beechwood. Walk in the door and there’s a counter to your right. You can either order there or, if no one’s manning it, at the hostess station, then sit in the restaurant or get your stuff to go. Its menu is smaller than the one at Groove Burgers and aims for simple excess. You can add egg, chili, bacon, onion rings and cheese to your burger, plus a gluten-free bun. It also offers turkey, chicken (crispy, grilled or Cajun) and veggie options, although the latter is both too strong-tasting and too bland at the same time.

The burgers are big and messy and totally acceptable, very similar to the ones Five Guys offers. Fancy is not the goal, but it’s still a step up from a drive-thru. Fries come in fat, skinny (both descriptions of actual dimensions, not healthiness) and chili-cheese. The shakes (thumbs up on strawberry) are topped with whipped cream. Fatburger is open from 11 a.m.–11 p.m. daily.